Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Jane Austen in the Novels of Paula Marantz Cohen

An anonymous commenter spurs me to undo, or at least contradict, yesterday's misAustenic rantings.

English professor Paula Marantz Cohen has written three novels, two of them with Jane Austen in the title. In one respect, this is savvy marketing, bait for the Austen cult. But it is also truth in advertising. Cohen boldly steals Austen's plots, plunking them down in her own contemporary American, Jewish milieu. Because the plot is the least important part of any good novel,* this saves her a lot of time and energy.

Jane Austen in Scarsdale, or Love, Death, and the SATs is the latest one. The plot is that of Persuasion, cleverly moved to Westchester County, but the interest of the book is really in the subtitle. The Anne Elliot stand-in is head guidance counsellor at a wealthy school, and much of the book is satire about the lunatic competition by students and parents to get into top colleges. None of this has any relation to Jane Austen, and it is the best thing in the book.

Much Ado About Jesse Kaplan, which hangs off of Shakespeare rather than Austen, has an identical structure. There's a plot that is actually about Shakespeare sonnets - the heroine's mother begins to think that she is Shakespeare's Dark Lady - but the most fun lies in the insanity of preparing for an upper-class bat mitzvah. The caterer, the DJ, I don't remember what else. Really funny stuff.

Jane Austen in Boca is unread by me at this point. This one is Pride and Prejudice amongst Florida retirees.

Cohen is funny, the literary business is unobtrusive (in the Scarsdale book, anyway) but gives the story a little more juice, and the change of setting and character does not stomp on the original. Cohen understands Austen's moral setting - she updates rather than upends.

I think these are the only "chick lit" novels I've ever read.

Light reading should not mean the end of critical thinking.

*Outrageous and certainly wrong. The thickness of the paper is obviously less important than the plot. Upon reflection, I may come up with other examples.

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